For Jewish News Sep 2023
It is safe to say that the music mogul Harvey Lisberg is no Walter Yetnikoff, the infamous record industry executive whose career — even by his own lights — was a litany of drugs, drugs and even more drugs.
But Lisberg, speaking from his home in Los Angeles where he and his wife Carole live when they’re not in their native Manchester, looks almost affronted when I practically accuse him of being a nice Jewish boy.
“There was gambling”, he ventures. “And sex”. But I can tell his heart’s not really in it as far as vices go. Lisberg, in fact, rose to fame as the legendary manager of two huge acts — Herman’s Hermits, in the 1960s, and 10CC in the 70s. And he also cut a swathe in the world of sports agenting, managing snooker stars such as Jimmy White and Alex “Hurricane” Higgins.
In Lisberg’s charming memoir, I’m Into Something Good, the Goffin and King mega-hit for Herman’s Hermits, he traces his life back to his 1940 birth and his upbringing in Waterpark Road, in the heartland of Jewish north Manchester.
Unusually for someone in the rock and pop business, Lisberg makes no attempt to hide or play down his Jewish background. So he writes entertainingly of his parents’ decision to get him away from smog-ridden Manchester by sending him down south to Berkshire, to board at Carmel College, headed by the former rabbi of Manchester’s Higher Crumpsall Synagogue, Kopul Rosen.
Lisberg was only eight and hated Carmel with such a passion that he ran away three times. On the third occasion he and a friend made it as far as the friend’s aunt in London, but rather than greet the boys with glad cries, she phoned the school immediately and returned them, much to their chagrin.
On their return Lisberg was sent to Kopul Rosen’s study. He feared he was in for a thrashing; but the rabbi offered him a deal. “You don’t run away again, and I won’t beat you”. The two gravely shook on it: “My first deal”, laughs Lisberg today.
Mention of the Higher Crumpsall synagogue leads Lisberg to reminisce with rhapsody about its legendary choir, led by Fabian Gonski. “When the choir sang on Rosh Hashanah, that was epic, it was a magical musical performance”, he says. Grinning, he says he only went to shul for two things: to look at girls and to hear the “opera” of the choir and chazan.
And in his memoir he talks about synagogue music and its minor keys. His family were keen on music and from that Lisberg says he developed his ear — and his almost unerring ability to spot a hit record in the making.
Long before he entered the music business, he had an early ambition to be a stockbroker — though there weren’t, as far as he knew, any Jewish stockbrokers. Instead, “always interested in shares and commerce,” but not really wanting to be “a boring accountant”, he went to Manchester University for a degree in economics.
“Then I did go into accountancy, but found it just as boring as I’d expected it to be”. His first job was with a Jewish firm in Manchester, doing mind-numbing work which today, he says, would be done by computer.
Fortunately he got a new job at a big accountancy firm, Binder Hamlyn, London-based but with a Manchester branch — and paying, says Lisberg, three times as much as in his previous post.
The big thing about Binder Hamlyn was their roster of star clients, most particularly the Grade brothers —“the epitome of power in the entertainment industry”. Because of the company’s links to entertainment, Lisberg was able to “get off work and go down to the TV studios, and the office manager would allow it. And I met lots of people there and made some close friendships”. He was, he tells me, “inspired by Leslie Grade”, a super-agent, and “the biggest schmoozer I ever met in my life”.
On page after page of Lisberg’s memoir we meet others like him, ambitious young Jewish men on the make, sharing musical tastes and, he says, Jewish humour and cynicism. The difference between the managers and the managed must have been vast: Lisberg first came across Peter Noone, the lead singer of Herman’s Hermits, in a Manchester suburb called Davyhulme — where there was no Jewish community at all. A bigger contrast with Waterpark Road and Broughton Park could not be imagined.
Lisberg was 23 when he met Noone, and had himself already begun writing songs with his friend Charlie Silverman. He’d gone to hear Noone — only 15 at the time — playing at a club in another seriously non-Jewish neighbourhood, Urmston. In November 1963, with financial support from a cousin and two friends, Lisberg signed Herman’s Hermits up and began booking dates for them around the country.
By August 1964 the group — with some changes in the line-up — had recorded I’m Into Something Good, which went to Number 1 in the British charts and, by the end of the year, in the top 20 in America. And Harvey Lisberg was still working at Binder Hamlyn, and preparing to take his final accountancy exams. Finally, after failing his exams dismally, he decided to take the leap into full-time management.
During that time Lisberg joined the man who became his long-time partner, Danny Betesh, another former accountant who had set up an agency called Kennedy Street Enterprises. That partnership lasted 30 years and though the two operated very differently — Betesh the conservative nine to five man, Lisberg the hustler who flew around the world making deals — Kennedy Street flourished, and remains one of the most successful musical agencies with a high profile roster of clients.
Despite the American success of the Hermits, Lisberg still had an eye on the domestic market. He had always known Graham Gouldman, who lived not far from him in north Manchester, and at 17 was “working in a shirt shop by day” and playing in a band at night. The band was the Whirlwinds, who used one of the rooms at the Jewish Lads’ Brigade premises both to rehearse and play to local Jewish teens. And Harvey Lisberg, though older than most of the other fans, would regularly go to the JLB and listen to the band. He had already picked out Gouldman as “brilliant” and soon he signed him up as a songwriter, separate from the Whirlwinds.
Before long Gouldman had written the future smash For Your Love, recorded by the Yardbirds, and everything took off. Gouldman, under Lisberg’s aegis, became a songwriter for hire, churning out hits, before ultimately linking up with old friends Lol Creme and Kevin Godley. With Eric Stewart, the former lead guitarist of Wayne Fontana and the Mindbenders — another Kennedy Street signing — the four creative musicians became the one-off phenomenon, 10CC, operating out of their own recording studios in Stockport.
Along the way Lisberg and Gouldman became brothers-in-law when Lisberg married Carole Gottlieb and Gouldman married her sister, Susan. Lisberg’s marriage lasted, while Gouldman’s did not.
Together with world-class musical success, and triumphs in sports management, Lisberg’s career has been a roller-coaster ride. But he admits to some mistakes, chief of which was a decision to let go the partnership of Tim Rice and Andrew Lloyd Webber, whom Kennedy Street had briefly signed. The crunch came when the pair wanted to push their new project, Jesus Christ Superstar. And Lisberg’s innate nice Jewish boy came to the fore. “I had this dilemma — I just thought, I can’t be promoting Jesus Christ while living in a road full of rabbis. It just didn’t feel right. But it was a mistake!”
Today, brimming over with showbiz anecdotes, Lisberg is actively promoting his memoir, and has hopes that one day it will be turned into either a documentary or feature film. Can’t wait for the soundtrack.